Review by lilithdarkstorm

Reviewed: 02/27/12

Freedom is not earned without a price

Within any group of gamers, Final Fantasy is normally a topic that gets any gamer talking with a smile on their face. Due to its ‘new game, new story’ staple, its stunning soundtrack and memorable characters; it’s very easy to get lost in conversations on favourite entries of the series, best loved moments, and so on. However the discussion normally goes sour the moment Final Fantasy XIII is brought up. Fans often express their deep hatred for the title to the point of quitting the series all together, and even for the likes of me who did enjoy the game find little voice to defend the title due to its very evident flaws in game play and storytelling. The announcement of a sequel understandably received mixed reception from fans and Final Fantasy XIII-2 carries the heavy burden of ‘fixing’ what went wrong before and carrying what the few fans did like about the past game somehow in unison. The end result is a truckload of side content to compensate for the unfortunate story.

XIII-2 is set 3 years after Fang and Vanille turned into crystal and saved the world of Cocoon from collapsing onto the world of Pulse, but everyone does not remember that day the same way. Serah recalls Lightning being one of the survivors and giving her blessing to her wedding to Snow, everyone else however says that Lightning died saving Cocoon. With no proof other than her own words and lacking power to change it, Serah lived her days on Pulse building a new life for herself as a teacher, when suddenly a meteorite collides into her home town along with random pockets of ‘time paradoxes’ occurring where the past and future seem to mix. Along with this meteorite comes Noel, a boy claiming to be from 700 years in the future where the world is nothing but a wasteland with him the sole survivor. With an apparent message from Lightning in to fix the paradoxes occurring across time and space itself, Serah and Noel set forth on a time travelling quest to repair the timeline and create a better future for all.

Time travelling? Paradoxes? Alternative dimensions? Sounds like a fanfiction crossover between Final Fantasy and Doctor Who at first glance or even a Star Ocean sequel rather than a continuation story of XIII’s powerful fal’Cie beings and people turning into crystal storyline. And the initial few hours of game play do little to ease the player into this new bold set up that Square Enix expects you to swallow. Unlike FFX-2 where the evolution of post-Sin world is explained, seen in greater detail and felt almost natural, XIII-2 however has a bad habit of jumping right to the point and making the characters accept their new predicament far too easily. On top of this; XIII-2 throws plot devices that often come with this sort of story in an attempt to make it more ‘epic’ such as creating alternative dimensions based upon certain actions or characters putting themselves to sleep so they can re-awaken in the future. Sadly the plot threads are often so flimsily thrown together with little to no explanation or reason that I found myself phasing in and out of the cut scenes without meaning to. This is not helped by the grating plot progression; you’ll watch cut scenes where the characters either act like complete idiots not knowing what’s going on or suddenly jump to conclusions that go beyond where your thought pattern has gotten too. There’s also several forks in the road as you go along when you’re given more than one place to go to next; great for the explorative types but then you’ll run into the danger of activating a cut scene that’s meant to take place further down the line, making the story flow even more fractured. It’s not always the case like in XIII where you needed to read the datalog to know what’s going on; the plot had weak legs to begin with and does little to strengthen itself as it goes on. Admittedly the writing team are being bold with their ideas and the story does pick up towards the end once we know more about Noel and the enemy, but with the script bogged down by Serah’s and Lightning’s constant internal monologues that badly needed to be edited down, and the travelling between different towns and time eras (you don’t just travel a year or two, more often than not its hundreds of years), all this combined makes the story development poor and erratic. If you just plough through the plot with no detours for side quests you’ll find yourself completing it in less than 20 hours, so even if it’s poor it’s also short.

The main characters however do not help the already weak story; on top of the small cameos of the cast from the previous game, only Serah and Noel carry the narrative. They are the only 2 playable characters in the entire game with the 3rd party member held for monsters you’ve captured (more on that later). The biggest crime these 2 characters have is that they’re ‘nice’, and that’s it. In itself that’s not bad but they create a huge gap that’s meant to help the large fan base to connect with the game. The reason RPGs often have a large cast of heroes is because they all have different behaviours and quirks that cater for all fans, so that no matter what kind of player you are you’ll have at least 1 character you like. Sure Noel maybe a little but more serious and hot-headed than Serah but we don’t have the comic relief guy, the tough girl act or the anti-hero to balance out the 2 ‘just nice’ people out to save Lightning. Unless you’re completely attached to Noel or Serah from the start you’ll find yourself getting very bored of them quickly. There are some new additions to the side character roster including the perky scientist Alyssa, the mysterious Yeul and monotone Caius; their likeability will vary but they all add their own into the game, even if they’re just various stereotypes.

On the superficial side the gameplay looks and feels very much unchanged from XIII, however after a few hours of playing you’ll notice a few minor changes here and there that make a big difference to how you play. Let’s start with the combat; the interface of auto battle, building attacks onto your ATB bar and only controlling 1 character hasn’t changed. You still have no direct control over the other 2 party members outside of the AI programming you set them and the battle scores still favour speed victories. So what exactly has changed? Firstly the rule in the original game where your ‘leader’ (the character you controlled) dying caused a game over is now removed. Instead your control is switched over to the other playable character in your team (so if Serah dies you control Noel) and you can choose who you play as during battle; this game play aspect has been seen in other RPGs such as Star Ocean for years now but the addition in XIII-2 makes boss battles a lot less infuriating compared to its predecessor. Also, monsters are no longer seen on the battlefield, instead they appear in a puff of smoke onto the field after you walk several steps like random encounters of the past. The difference however is that not all battles are mandatory; you have a ‘mog clock’ (named after your pet moogle) that sets a timer to get away from the enemy or cast the first strike, if the timer is up before you could do either you’ll enter a battle with the enemy without the option to run away. The random generation of enemies will be nostalgic and slightly frustrating at times when you’re trying to get something done with them suddenly appear in your path but the method of encounters is not better or worse than the previous game.

The 3rd member of your party is not a character per-se, instead you have the power to recruit and train monsters that you face in combat. How it works is that after defeating an enemy there’s a chance that you can capture their essence as a crystal and add them to your team, the percentage rate of capture varies from monster to monster. Each capture represents one battle class only (ravanger, medic, etc) each with their own strengths, weaknesses, passive and offensive abilities. It’s up to you who you wish to use or not, you can store up to 3 monsters for your menu and then select whom you have on the battlefield when sorting out your Paradism packs. The monster capture has been seen briefly in the X-2 International release (not released outside of Japan) and it also has elements of Legend of Legaia’s ratio of capturing the power of a monster in that you may need to battle them several times before you can use them for your own purposes. Admittedly, it is pretty cool to have a Bomb creature blast fire at your enemy or see a Green Chocobo heal your party, plus some rarer monsters will have access to abilities that Serah and Noel won’t learn, making them valuable in the long run. The number of creatures you can use can be overwhelming at first but it allows you to have play with all of them and create the party you wish to save the world with.

The Crystarium makes a return and again LOOKS the same but with a few small tweaks. The developments of the Crystarium is not controlled by story developments like in XIII, instead if you complete a section by using up points earned in side quests or combat you automatically earn a bonus of your choice (e.g. role boosts, increase in ATB gauge) before moving on to the next brand of development. Serah and Noel only have few roles open at first but are unlocked as you go; the development of your stats and levels all rely on the Crystarium and as the role progression is more in your control you can choose what to build and what stats you favour in increasing. The same cannot be said however for the monster Crystarium; you can also build their levels as soon as you recruit them but in a different way. Their level and stat increase don’t rely on CP, so no matter who many times you use them in battle they annoyingly won’t get any stronger until you invest various materials in them. You can buy items in store or earn them from battle victories but not all monsters use the same material to level up. You’ll come to notice that some monsters can use more than one type of item to increase different stats, sometimes you’ll need to use 4 of one item just to increase one level, which drops your inventory considerably. It looks easy at first but once you capture higher level monsters that only use very rare items for levelling up, or you see how you’ve wasted your best materials on one monster that has stopped levelling up all together at LV20 because it apparently has a cap, it can get needlessly difficult and cause a bit of a headache. If you’re just focusing on the story then the monsters and items you gain along the main path won’t cause too much hassle. The side quests will allow access to stronger monsters but the pain of levelling them up will increase with them, and although their abilities may differ to your main party, their stats are unlikely to match Noel’s or Serah’s after a certain point, making them a hindrance after a while.

Outside of battles there are a few new game play mechanics sown in; several of them revolve around your pet moogle. As he’s from another timeline with magical powers he has the ability to find hidden treasures that are from another timeline (hidden very well from the naked eye) and bring them into your timeline and sight for grabbing. You also learn later on to throw your moogle across far distances to reach treasures that your characters are physically unable to reach. Part of the fun is find those hidden treasures that glint slightly in the light and have moogle uncover a rare item or fragment, plus throwing the moogle creates a cry from Mog which I’m sure several twisted Final Fantasy fans will get a joy out of.

Another new addition is puzzles; you’ll come across several ‘temporal rifts’ (large golden spikes on the field) which act as a paradox within themselves that Serah and Noel must fix. These paradoxes serve as three different puzzles; one is a crystal based puzzle where the character has to connect the crystals in pairs of colours and form a picture given within the time frame. The second puzzle is a mini maze where you have to collect crystals on several red platforms that disappear after you’ve stepped on them, so you must make the journey across without backtracking. The last one is a clock face numeric challenge where the numbers represent certain ‘spaces’ (so if you step on a ‘2’ the clock hands travel 2 steps to either side of the number) and the aim of the game is to clear the clock face of all the numbers without landing on a complete space on both hands; some are set to a time limit and sometimes the puzzles is randomise. These puzzles will vary in difficulty depending on the location you find the temporal rifts and how good you are with puzzles. As the puzzles often come in threes or more, they can test your patience rather quickly if you’re not the type who likes challenging brainteasers. I especially found the clock face variety tiring when the puzzle is often randomized after every failure, so I was unable to strategize or think clearly under the pressure of the clock ticking. They especially become frustrating later on as a particular area within the game is filled with them.

Now let’s discuss the massive chink in Final Fantasy XIII’s armour; the linearity. If you recall my review of the previous title I said that ALL RPGs are linear to an extent but it’s the inclusion of towns that give the brief space of freedom to the player long enough to think they’re in control of their actions of visiting shops and opening hidden treasures before they embark on the linear path again. That is why XIII is considered too linear because it had no towns or freedom of choice, just one big dungeon crawl. So does its sequel fix this? In a way, not entirely; there are still no towns per se – there are spaces you can walk around without random attacks but they’re just your old dungeons from the last game remodelled slightly, and the shops are now all condensed into one annoyingly chipper shop keeper. On the other hand it does; although there’s no conventional method of a town, the game instead offers an extremely wide variety of side quests and hidden items in various dungeons with multiple paths. So even though there are no towns there’s plenty of side content to make up for it. If I had to bluntly describe the side quests I would have to say that they are simply a ‘glorified item fetch quest’. And to be fair that is precisely what it is. The whole game revolves around finding ‘fragments’ across space and time in order to fix the paradox; there’s 160 fragments to collect and all of them have different conditions to find them. Some require you to simply open treasure spheres, other need you to talk to someone then fetch an item of their choosing, and so on. So yes, you are officially on an immense item fetch quest but it’s the conditions of the items and how you fetch them that make the side content worthwhile. Although the dialogue for the side quests can be just as heavily and badly written as the main storyline, they really are worth investing as various side quests lead to bonus ‘Paradox Endings’ (where the game can go from completely crazy to emotional), mini stories that help develop the weak main plot, re-explore old favourite fields from the past game, spend more time with the previous cast of the game, and more. There was only chocobo item hunting and monster killing in XIII. XIII-2 does not have this problem. Whether you like taking down tough enemies, finding hidden treasure or even playing slot machines in the casino – the game has it all to keep you occupied for 50+ hours, and that’s not including downloadable content that’s currently being released in drips and drabs right now with new episodes, extra costumes, and even more boss challenges. Also, with every fragment you earn you also gain Crystarium points – this can however lead to the problem of your main party being extremely over levelled by the time you reach the final episode of the story. Unlike XIII there’s no massive difficulty spike later on and enemies are no longer in love with the ‘Doom’ spell like in the previous title, so the sequel is far easier and quicker to complete, even when aiming for the 100% completion challenge.

Music is a mixed bag as a result of having 3 different composers working on the entire score; Masashi Hamauzu returns to provide some of it as well as recycle some of the tunes from the previous game, and more often than not it’s his pieces that are the strongest of the soundtrack. Like the previous game there’s a focus on vocal themes throughout the title, so there’s a flow somewhere in the backing score. The other pieces of music however range from utterly forgettable to jarring considering the variety of genres the music goes to and often plays back to back; for example we have the pop-lead Sunleth Waterscape that leads into a heavy metal battle theme complete with screaming male vocals. You can’t deny that the score is varied and no matter what genre of music you’re into you’ll find a piece that catches your ear, but none of the tracks demand a re-listen once you’ve switched off the PS3.

Voice acting is mostly the same talent provided by the previous game, so if you liked or disliked the talent your feelings will remain for the sequel. Graphics are also pretty much the same as before, there’s still some breath-taking scenes here to remind you it’s a Final Fantasy game in HD but overall there’s nothing here you wouldn’t have seen before if you’ve played a Final Fantasy title.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 reminded me very much of Final Fantasy X-2; not in the way that it opened on a pop concert or had a love story at the centre of it, but in the way that the lacking and short story was compromised by the countless hours of side quests and extra content. Yet the million pound question is this; is it better than Final Fantasy XIII? Gameplay wise, it’s a yes; the small tweaks in the combat plus varied extra content is vastly superior to its predecessor. The story however really adds nothing new or repairs any of the poor storytelling issues the previous game had. In spite of Square Enix’s decent efforts to create an epic journey through time and space, it couldn’t make all of it add up or weave enough intriguing dialogue to make the whole XIII saga really worthwhile for everyone. However for those who hated XIII’s lack of extra content will leap onto XIII-2’s polar opposite options, and for some gamers that will be enough. As a gamer who likes the balance of extra content and intriguing story to be equal, only half of me was satisfied. It’s enough to keep me tied over for now but it won’t be long before my RPG’s itch needs to be scratched again. In other words, Square Enix; bring on Final Fantasy Verses XIII!

The Good:
+ Hours upon hours of extra content to embark on from the start, with more downloadable content on the way
+ Voice acting and graphics still as great as ever
+ Small tweaks to already decent combat system makes all the difference for a more fun and easily accessible game
+ More freedom for the player, little linearity and lower difficulty; giving the player control they didn’t get with XIII

The Bad:
- Short story is flimsily put together with only 2 characters too similar personalities to carry it
- Small cameos from previous cast will not go down well with some fans
- New music isn’t as memorable as previous soundtrack, despite the variety
- Levelling up monsters is too messy than it needs to be
- Temporal Rift puzzles can be very irritating in the long run as they’re poorly pasted close together

In a sentence: Freedom is not earned without a price

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Limited Collector's Edition) (EU, 02/03/12)

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